I woke in the middle of Sunday night under the oppressive heat of two hot and sweaty bodies piled on top of me. Mom and Dad are gone on vacation, so Bob is sleeping down at the farm all week. Knowing I am quick to pass out in bed at the end of each day, Saoirse and Ula took full advantage of his absence and my oblivion, and invaded my space without my knowledge after the lights were out.
But just before midnight, I was fully aware. And I wanted my own bed. We all had to be up and running extra early in the morning so that Ula could attend her first day of camp, an experience she has been pleading for since last the winter before last. We all needed our sleep. And these two fast-growing girls are no longer small enough to let that happen comfortably in one big family bed.
To wear a cape because you like it is innocent pleasure; to wear a cape despite knowing others do not is an act of bravery.
I tried nudging them gently. They didn’t stir. I tried lifting them. They’ve grown too heavy. I whispered sweetly, “Girls, c’mon. You need to go to your own beds.” No reaction. I grew annoyed. These girls are too old for this. I am too old for this.
I shouted. “SAOIRSE AND ULA! I CAN’T SLEEP BECAUSE YOU ARE ON TOP OF ME. GET UP AND GO TO YOUR OWN BEDS!” They rolled over.
“NOW!” They grumbled that I didn’t need to be so harsh, then stumbled off, leaving me to my space.
And only a few hours later, I was waking them again so that Ula wouldn’t be late for her first day of camp. Over breakfast, I informed them that they were old enough to stay in their own beds, that I needed my sleep as much as they did. Then we loaded up the car and took off for Ula’s big adventure.
Later that day, I picked up little Ula, who was slightly confused. As a homeschooler, she had never been in an organized group of kids before. Her impression was that they spent a lot of their time waiting on line and raising their hands to speak. We talked about it, and I explained that this is how things work when large numbers of people are trying to learn or experience something new.
The next day, she got up easily, ready to play the part of the anthropological participant-observer and experience standing on line and raising her hand. She dressed for the event. After donning shorts and a t-shirt, she found a piece of sparkly pink diaphanous fabric to wear as a cape. She added bling to her sunhat by inserting a feather and pinning a silk scarf to the back. I rejoiced in her flare and snapped a photo before we headed out the door.
When we pulled in, at the last minute, she chose to leave her cape in the car. But she proudly took her sunhat and wore it as she waved to me while I pulled away. When I picked her up, the hat had been shoved into the bottom of her bag. I said nothing.
On the third day, she came home particularly tired and cranky, prone to spurts of crying, all unusual behaviors for my spirited little wonder. I cancelled all afternoon activities. I left Saoirse with Bob down at the farm, and brought Ula home. We cuddled together on the screen porch with mugs of mint tea and read a book. I didn’t get up to cook supper, I didn’t put away any laundry, I didn’t water the flowers, I didn’t walk the dogs, until my Ula re-emerged from her dark cloud.
She came back to me. She found her smiles and giggles once more, she found ways to annoy me by climbing all over the furniture. She played with the dogs, she put on music.
Bob and Saoirse came home for supper. And as we sat down at the table, Ula admitted that she hadn’t eaten the lunch I’d packed for her.
“But you asked me to make you deviled eggs for this week,” I said. “I packed what you wanted.”
“Yes, but the other kids were staring at my food. They thought it was weird. So I just put it away.”
“What were they eating?” asked Bob.
“Sandwiches with juice boxes.”
“We don’t eat sandwiches and we don’t drink juice, honey.” I reminded her.
“I know. But they think I’m weird.”
Bob and I looked at each other. This awareness was coming sooner in Ula’s development than we had anticipated.
“Sweetie,” I said, “we are weird. And it isn’t because we can’t have the same things. It is because we’ve chosen something different as a family.”
Somehow, in my own choice to walk away, I have taken it for granted that my children wouldn’t have to wage the same battle in their souls.
Bob explained about how we avoid things like bread and juice because it makes blood sugar swing, which makes kids at first energetic, then overly hungry and cranky. Saoirse reminded her that juice boxes were extremely wasteful. Ula nodded in blank-faced agreement. Then I asked her about her cape and sunhat.
“I decided they would think the cape was weird, so I left it in the car. I thought the sunhat was okay, but then the kids told me that was weird, too, so I took it off.”
My heart broke. It isn’t that I didn’t know that this was coming. But I thought it would happen later. Ula is only six. Saoirse, who will be 10 this summer, is the one I expect to be more self-conscious.
But they are different. Saoirse, while she is shy, prefers to dress her own way and do her own thing. She doesn’t make friends quickly, and she doesn’t care. So she dresses and eats as she likes. But Ula loves people. She loves making friends. Until now, she has always made them easily, just by being herself. Suddenly, being in this group, she seemed to believe she would only make them if she didn’t stand out. To me, it felt like a fall from innocence.
But I keenly remembered my own experiences growing up. I was embarrassed that my mother made me homemade cookies and that I had homemade bread for my sandwiches at school lunches. I was so afraid of being different in kindergarten, I opted for absolute silence. The teacher requested a special conference with my parents because I refused to speak at all. Following a few years in the system, I grew tired of seeking invisibility. I began to wear a flat cap to school every day, along with bright colored shirts, yellow suspenders, and hightop sneakers with big, fat mismatched laces. I said what was on my mind, and chose to celebrate the fact that I was different.
There were days I was fearful about my choices, but something inside railed against the pressure of conforming, and I had two parents at home cheering me on. That helped a lot.
I told this to Ula and Saoirse over dinner. I told them how I came to realize that anyone who was comfortable with me looking a little different in school usually turned out to be someone fun to be around. I told them how some of the other girls started getting hightop sneakers, too.
They laughed, then ran upstairs in excitement, wanting to decorate their clothes and Ula’s lunchbox.
But I went into the other side of the house and began to cry. I know we all go through this. We hippie, crunchy, live-in-harmony-with-the-earth-and-just-be-yourself parents have already emerged from our struggles with mainstream society. We found our souls and we walked away. And somehow, in my own choice to walk away, I have taken it for granted that my children wouldn’t have to wage the same battle in their souls.
But they do. They cannot follow in my footsteps. They have to experience the same struggles, ask themselves the same questions, make their own choices.
And I don’t want my little baby to have to ask those questions yet. I want her to be my sparkling Ula, with her slightly crooked eye and her purple glasses and her brilliant costumes and her made-up songs and her world-famous dance routines performed in front of the wood stove.
I can encourage and cheer her on, but I cannot choose for her that she will stay this way. Changes are coming.
To wear a cape and sunhat with a feather and a silk scarf because you like it is innocent pleasure. To wear a cape and a sunhat with a feather and a silk scarf because you like it, and you are fully aware that others do not, is an act of bravery. But it must be a chosen act. It cannot be done because Mommy tells you to do it, and it may take years to work up that courage. And so, aside from assuring her that she is beautiful and celebrating her uniqueness, I must respect her choices, tell her I love her no matter what, and watch to see what unfolds.
I came to this resolution last night, dried my tears, then went upstairs to read bedtime stories. The girls dutifully went to their own beds, we turned out the light, and we all went to sleep. A few hours later, Ula called out in the darkness.
“Can I come cuddle?”
I pulled the covers aside and made room for her, then snuggled close, taking in her scent, feeling her baby-soft skin as we wrapped our arms around each other, just grateful for every lingering moment I can have with my baby before any further changes hit.
Shannon Hayes writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her books include The Grassfed Gourment, Radical Homemakers, and Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled.